UK’s Action Plan on Business and Human Rights – a break with the past?

When two Secretaries of State – Hague and Cable - combine to launch a government plan for UK businesses to respect human rights, it’s safe to assume they consider it a Big Thing.  But how much does the government really care what UK companies get up to outside its borders?

Hague and Cable’s view is that we can both lead on business and human rights and continue with the success of British companies. Some might argue the opposite - abusing human rights is often profitable for companies. The business case for respecting human rights is unclear despite the government’s assertion that “this brings business benefits in various ways”.

Linking human rights with successful business is the win-win scenario that the government is always seeking. But this approach ignores the moral argument that businesses are a part of wider society, and should respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  They should not be allowed to get away with abusing human rights even when this is profitable.

So what will the Action Plan do?

While the government’s Action Plan is skewed heavily towards the kind of self-regulation that has failed to prevent abuses – such as Shell’s in the Niger Delta - it does include some significant proposals that suggest a break with the past.

For a start, it seeks to “incentivise UK businesses to meet their responsibility to respect human rights… both at home and abroad.” A good start for a government that has until now adopted a somewhat hands-off approach. The devil is in the detail, of course, and most importantly we need to know what will happen to companies that fail to meet their responsibilities.

Among the proposed incentives is a reference to UK government rules that “allow for human rights-related matters to be reflected in the procurement of public goods, works and services.” This could have implications for companies such as G4S and Serco, which rely heavily on government contracts and have been implicated in human rights abuses. The government needs to ensure that the impact on human rights is fully reflected in tendering processes, and not merely an abstract consideration.

Most interestingly for us, the UK will “instruct our embassies and high commissions to support human rights defenders working on issues related to business and human rights.”  Does this mean that UK embassies abroad will no longer promote harmful projects by UK companies, such as the Phulbari coalmine in Bangladesh, that have been linked to human rights violations of those protesting against their impacts?

The Action Plan also acknowledges the need for the UK to look at laws regulating business activities, to “continually re-assess whether the current mix is right, what gaps there might be and what improvements we can make.” But that statement doesn’t sit comfortably with the government’s current reluctance to increase business regulation. What form will this re-assessment take, and will it involve victims of corporate abuses and the organisations documenting them?

With UK companies managing to bypass rules that are intended to hold them accountable, the Action Plan commits to ensure that overseas investments do not undermine the host country’s ability to meet their human rights obligations.  This is a far-reaching commitment – but how will the government ensure State-investor contracts are compatible with human rights?

There are many positive proposals in the UK’s Action Plan that, if properly implemented, would lead to real improvements in business impacts on human rights. What is lacking is any sense of how these will work on the ground, and whether the political will exists to make this happen. Until we have a much more detailed set of proposals and evidence of implementation, the government’s “national implementation plan for the UN Guiding Principles” is no more than a set of aspirational statements. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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